Series 02: For The Love Of Moxie | Episode 08
Discovering That You are Good Enough with Amena Brown
Jen meets up with her feisty and funny friend, Amena Brown. Amena is an author, spoken word poet, speaker and event host. Amena shares some of the story of how she came into her own; which she also recounts in her new book How To Fix a Broken Record. She describes the freedom of what’s it like when you are finally true to yourself. She also shares how she discovered the power of ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ what it’s like to go to a Tall People’s Club, how she “kissed dating goodbye (but not forever),” and relates her journey through the lens of popular music that identified the various seasons of her life (Sasha Fierce, anyone?).
Narrator: Welcome to the “For the Love Podcast” with bestselling author Jen Hatmaker. Come on in, and join us for a chat with Jen and friends about all the things we love. Now, here’s Jen.
Jen: Everybody, it’s Jen. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast today. Glad to have you. We are still in the series called “For The Love of Moxie.” We’ve just had some amazing conversations. If you’ve missed any of them, you’re going to want to go back and pick them up. Just women who are in-general amazing. They’re slaying in their careers, and in their ministries, and in their relationships, and they’re overcoming struggles, and rising back up strong, and it’s just been a really healing, and nourishing, and fascinating series for me. So much so, that I kept extending it.
Today’s guest is just a woman that I love, and I respect, and I always want to be close to her in a room. Amena Brown is on today. If you don’t already know Amena, I’m excited for you to listen in for the next hour. She’s an author. Her primary art form; she’s a spoken word poet. She’s a speaker, she’s an event host, because she’s so funny, and so lively. Her personality is so sparkly. Amena is the author of five spoken word albums, and then she’s written two nonfiction books – How to Fix A Broken Record is her newest book–it comes out in November. So, it is coming up, we’re going to talk about it here in a second. Then she wrote Breaking Old Rhythms a couple of years ago. Amena performs at all kinds of events. She does sort of simple and intimate at coffee houses, all the way to enormous arenas and everything in between with just poetry and humor and storytelling.
She’s incredibly gifted. She speaks to all kinds of audiences; high school and college students, young adults, women, church and it’s very diverse. She has a very, very wide audience. She facilitates all sorts of workshops, and breakout sessions on just all these things that she’s really really good at; creativity, writing, artistry, relationships. So I’m thrilled for you to hear her talk today. By the way, do not bail on this conversation early. Not that you’re going to, but at the very end of our podcast, Amena shares one of her own poems–she does a spoken word piece and it is—-well, I cried. So anyway, you’re going to want to listen all the way through today because she’s encouraging, she’s smart, she’s wise, she’s funny. We’re going to talk about bad dates. We’re going to talk about all kinds of stuff. I’ve been on stages with Amena and every time is a thrill– every time. I’m so proud of her, I’m so proud to be her friend. I’m proud to be her sister. If you don’t already know her, you’re going to be really glad that you do after this conversation. Amena so belongs in this series about women with moxie. She absolutely belongs here. so I’m thrilled to have her on the podcast today and I hope you enjoy our chat.
Jen: Good morning.
Amena: Good morning, Jen. I feel like we’re having coffee or tea together, sort of.
Jen: I know, I love it. I was just saying to you that this is so fun for me because I feel like what’s happening is we’re getting an awesome catch-up phone call and so people will listen to it.
Amena: That’s very cool.
Jen: Everybody else will just kind of gather around us and we don’t even know. We’re just gonna talk about our lives. I’m so glad to be on the call with you. I’ve missed you.
Amena: I know. I’ve missed you. I was very excited.
Jen: When’s the last time we were together? Was it last year?
Amena: I think it might have been last year or maybe two years ago.
Jen: I think actually you’re right. Whatever it is, the answer is too long.
Amena: Right, fact.
Jen: But I just follow, follow, follow, follow, follow all along with your awesome life. You’re just kind of slaying right now. It’s really fun to watch. Does life feel fun to you right now?
Amena: It does feel fun. It feels like slightly risky but in a really good way.
Jen: That makes perfect sense to me. I get that. Just kind of right when you’re on the razor’s edge of … It’s almost hysterical laughter. It’s fun, right? It is fun, it’s just slightly terrifying. I feel like that’s my life mantra.
I think, actually, is the first time that we ever met at IF maybe three years ago?
Amena: No. I think we actually met before that. I can’t decide if it was … I think we first met at Echo conference, I think.
Jen: Oh my gosh.
Amena: I think you were doing a breakout session there. Well, I guess I should say when I met you. You might didn’t meet me.
Amena: ‘Cause I didn’t meet me at Echo conference.
Jen: Listen …
Amena: But I was sitting in on your breakout session and I was like, “All the things she’s saying, yes.” And then we met in a green room at another event that I’ll just leave the name out, because there’s such a funny story to go with it, so they won’t be embarrassed.
Jen: Remind me. Tell the story.
Amena: Yeah. We met at another event and you were speaking on the main stage with another male pastor. It was one of those times before the session where, at a church conference, everyone is going to pray together and particularly for the people that are speaking on the main stage. So the man who was selected to pray, I’m exaggerating, but he spent like 45 minutes praying for the other male pastor. I’m kinda like …
Jen: Like, “Come on, bro.”
Amena: Yeah. They’re like 15 minutes in, I’m like, “My eyes are open now.” I’m like, “Okay, now, is somebody gonna … ” and then I’m like, “Oh, nobody’s gonna pray for Jen?” So I think I tried to put my hand on your shoulder like, “And bless Jen, Jesus. Give Jen the … I mean, can Jesus give Jen the stuff, too?”
Jen: “And anoint your daughter.”
Amena: Yes, please, God. So that is my memory of that moment that I think after the prayer, I just looked at you and was like, “Jesus gonna bless you too, Jen. Jesus gonna give you the power today.”
Jen: That is amazing, that is so amazing. You know what that reminds me of? I, too, will redact the name of the place, but I was speaking one time at a really large traditional church as a guest. I was sort of the guest in to do a Sunday morning spot. This was a place where you’re just not typically going to see a lot of women delivering the Sunday morning message. The guy who introduced me, this was so hilarious. We’re talking thousands of people. So, the guy who introduced me, I’m not exaggerating. He comes up and he’s like, ” Well, everybody, we have a real treat this morning for the ladies.”
Jen: I mean it’s Sunday morning, right? ” … For the ladies, and Jen Hatmaker is here, and she’s just,” you know, however men say about when women preach. “Just gonna share some tidbits from the heart.” And he goes, “And men, we’ll all just kind of get to peek over their shoulders and eavesdrop on the conversation between the ladies.”
Jen: And I was like, “Oh my Lord…. Okay. I see where we’re at today.” So, yeah. Anyway ….
Amena: No one has time.
Jen: … We put up with some shenanigans, cause you and I are women in a predominantly male world, in a lot of spaces.
Amena: I’m like, dear, I mean, we have breasts and a uterus and can speak with power.
Amena: And that God can speak to us. What a weird thing!
Jen: What’s so bizarre? Oh, not everybody just has to peek over the shoulders of the ladies to get something out of it. So, thanks, guys.
So, you know what? I heard something awesome. And I watched and I had so many friends with you. You and I talked about it, too. But, one thing I wanted to kick off, cause you and I did the IF gathering together for couple of years. Last year, to me this was the crowning glory of all four years of IF culminating into one awesome thing. Because, last year you hosted a brunch for women of color.
Amena: Jo Saxton …
Jen: … Jo, exactly.
Amena: It was like the best squad ever.
Jen: Best squad ever. Can you talk about that a little bit? Just even the whole arc of it, how it came to be, why it came to be. Sort of what that looked like, what it felt like.
Amena: Yeah, I think it was a culmination of a conversation that a lot of women of color leaders, particularly in evangelical space and maybe in general, just in sort of Christian faith based space have been having about the need for women of color to have a safe space. In particular, in a lot of faith environments, a lot of us as women of color are in the only club. We’re walking into a green room, some of us into our jobs, and different things, where we are the only woman of color or person of color, period, in that space.
For the women who wanted to attend IF gathering, we wanted to start off in that space to say, “We’re all in this sisterhood together, we want to have some communal space before we went into the general event.”
We really didn’t know how many women were going to come.
Amena: We were really like, “Oh man, maybe 30 women will come,” and we had … I think there were over 150 women.
Jen: It’s crazy.
Amena: …That had come to that.
Jen: It’s crazy, especially since Tasha tells the story of being at the very first one, looking around the room. Tasha, call me if I get the number wrong. But I think she said, “I looked around and counted. I was one of four women of color.”
Jen:…Is that what it was? In the whole, entire thing.
Jen: So fast forward four years later. To have 150 women gathered, sort of as a pre-event, I mean, it’s powerful.
Amena: Yeah. I think when we’re talking about, when we’re using words like diversity, I think our first thought is, “Oh well, diversity’s like a bunch of crayons and I gotta make sure I have a purple one, and I gotta make sure I have an orange one. And if I get so many colors in the rainbow on there, then I’m good to go.” And really, diversity is not that easy. Diversity actually takes some really hard and relational work. We’re really gonna do the work of diversity.
Amena: In dismantling a lot of racism that’s sitting, even in a lot of Christian theology.
Jen: That’s right.
Amena: There’s all this work to be done, and a part of that is to say to women of color, “Your voices are important, your leadership is important.” So we wanted to create that space, and it really did a beautiful thing for all of us. We got in little circles and talked, and just really connected. I think that’s a huge thing for people of color and just marginalized people in general, to make sure you have that safe space among your people, also.
Jen: Oh, man. I mean, so many of my friends were there that day. Their response to it was so kind of healing and strong. That was the high point, for sure, of the entire space. I like what you said because the easy, shallow definition of diversity simply means presence. Meaning if you just look out with their eyes, you’re gonna see some different colors. But the deep rooted work of it is hard.
Jen: And it requires honesty and repentance from white people, and dismantling systems. So now we’re talking about … This is the stuff. And this is where people are reticent to go, because it requires so much unlearning. Cause of course, we built our whole lives in a white narrative. It was cast to us as “normal.”
Jen: So the undoing of that and the relearning, it’s painful. It’s scary and it’s really disorienting. So, it’s important work and I love the compassion to create those safe spaces for women of color. I think just a place to honestly grieve, if you need to, lament. And just feel not alone in it, strong. It’s really strong.
Amena: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
Jen: I want to talk about what you do specifically. So of course, everybody who knows you already knows this. You’re so, so gifted. In our world, in our sort of Christian conference-y, lot of church settings; a lot of people haven’t seen what you do, which is this spoken poetry. This beautiful, artistic, creative art form. So, some of our listeners right now might not know exactly what it is that you do.
The speakers are a dime a dozen. What I do, just throw a nickel and you can hit any of us. But what you do is so rare, so special, so unique … Can you explain what it is you do and how you got into it?
Amena: Yeah. What I do is called spoken word poetry, although when I started 20 years ago Jen, actually 20 years ago …
Amena: … When I started performing spoken word poetry, I’m 37. I started when I was 17 years old. I don’t even know if I knew at the time that that’s what that was called, that it had its own genre.
Jen: Did you have a mentor? Did you watch somebody?
Amena: No. I started out, really, I was just a nerdy kid and I just loved reading, so I just read books all over the place and really loved, I just loved books so much that I was like, “Whatever you have to do have your words in this … ” That’s what I want to do kind of thing. You know?
Amena: So I read Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes.
Amena: I was just reading, reading all over the place. I started writing my own poetry when I was about 12 or 13. I always love to tell this story about my mom, because my mom was a single parent, myself and my sister. My mom explained to us very explicitly that she does not believe in privacy.
Amena: She was like, “Just so everybody in the house is clear … ”
Jen: Let me just set you straight.
Amena: ” … You don’t have a job. I have a job. And everything in this house really belongs to me. When you go to bed, you laying in my sheets.” You know?
Jen: That’s amazing.
Amena: “You in my room, eating my food, talking on my telephone. So if I find it, I’m reading it.”
Jen: Oh my God. That’s awesome.
Amena: Of course, this is in an era where there were no cell phones, right? So my friends and I were literally writing notes to each other.
Amena: In class, right?
Jen: Yeah, folding them.
Amena: My mom was like, “If I find a note, I’m reading it.” So, you did. She would be like, “Who’s Terrance?” And I would be like, chemistry class. She’d be like, “You not in school to study that kinda chemistry. So don’t let me see any more notes from Terrance.”
Jen: Who’s Terrance? Oh my gosh. She’s my patroness.
Jen: I love it.
Amena: So she found one of my notebooks and she said, “I love your poetry.” She’s like, “I really think what you’re writing is so beautiful.” But you know, it’s your mom. I tie my shoes, my mom’s like, “You’re a genius. You’re amazing.”
Jen: Totally. Same.
Amena: I was like, “Who trusts your opinion, mom?” So as I got older, I would compete in these speech competitions. I would never win.
Amena: I’d get like third place. Mostly competing with other poets’ work. Memorizing Maya Angelou and trying to orate that for a competition. I’d get like third place. My mom would be so mad the entire way home.
Jen: Cause you were robbed?
Amena: “Judges, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They let that girl win cause she did her own poems. You do your own poems.” I mean, she would rail again and again.
So finally, my last year of high school, when I had just started kind of getting into thinking about more, almost what felt like monologue-style poetry, which was really spoken word, she took one of my poems and without telling me, submitted it to a competition.
Amena: If it won, I had to go there and perform it in front of those people. So let’s say the award ceremony is on a Saturday. It’s like Wednesday when she comes to me like, “Hey, so turned in your poem for this competition. And it won.”
Amena: “And you’re going there Saturday. And you’re gonna do your poem.” My mom’s not the kind of mom that you’re like, “No, I’m not going.” Your gonna think it inside. You gonna think it deep within, but you’re not gonna say it out loud.
Jen: I got it.
Amena: Inside I was like, “Oh, girl, no, I’m not doing that. That’s a terrible idea.” But I said, “Yeah, cool. I’ll be in the car, cool.”
Jen: Oh, my God.
Amena: So I went and I fell in love with performing my own work, you know?
Jen: You did. Yeah. And you’re like 17?
Amena: I’m 17 years old. Yes.
Jen: And these are your words you’re saying for the first time. Did it feel different on stage?
Amena: It felt strange because I knew that I was young and I was performing in front of mostly a room of adults, and they were really leaning into what I was saying. I think that was the first time that I felt afraid. If there’s a way to feel afraid in a good way, I think I felt afraid. Like, “Something about this isn’t me. They’re adults. Why would they be leaning into the things a 17-year old has to say? There has to be something more powerful, a place more powerful that this comes from than just my little 17-year old story.” I think that brought me some good responsibility to the words that I say that day.
Jen: So from there, you just kept your hand at it. You kept writing, you kept performing and finding new venues. It’s been really interesting to watch you the last few years, because the response to your work, the response to your specific art is strong. It’s really positive. It’s universally positive, as far as I can see. To me, it feels like, at least in this subculture that you and I overlap in, it feels very groundbreaking, it feels very original. There’s no other Amenas. And so, I wonder if you can … Cause sometimes, I’m a certain flavor, too. I am who I am, and it works sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t.
There have been times when I’ve been invited somewhere, and I walk in a room, and I just think, “This isn’t gonna work. This is a bad fit. This is square peg, round hole. I don’t know why I got invited here and I’m not sure this is gonna work.” And then, sometimes I’m surprised in the most incongruent spiritual spaces where I think that my type of teaching, my type of being, my ideology, my theology is gonna just crash and burn, it flourishes and it finds a lot of life.
I wonder if, do you have an experience like that? Because your stuff is so specific, it’s so original, it’s so unique. Did you ever bring that into an environment where you thought, “It’s not gonna work here. These folks are not gonna get it,” but they did?
Amena: Yes, yes. I think that moment that I’m remembering was a really great turning point for me as an artist. Because I think when I first started, I was in my 20s, you know, that’s its own very strange puberty. It’s like a puberty that’s not of your body, but of your mind and ideals.
Jen: Excellent way to put it, yeah.
Amena: All those things, right? So I think at that time, when I was kind of hanging around other speakers and authors just beginning that weird green room journey, which is its own thing.
Jen: Oh, man.
Amena: You go into the green room and have all those weird moments. I think as I was meeting more speakers and stuff, I was sort of getting this vibe from people that maybe I needed to grow up from doing spoken word.
Jen: Oh, interesting.
Amena: And I needed to become a speaker.
Jen: Did people say that directly to you?
Amena: I think there was like this implied, in some of the things that, some of the speakers that had been around longer than me. Some of the things that they would say like, “Oh you’re doing poetry, okay. Well do you ever just speak at these things? Do you ever speak and talk about those things?” Some of the questions that they would ask. And maybe they didn’t mean a thing by it, and I just took it away. It’s hard to say. But I was sort of starting to question, “Is this a real thing? I don’t know.”
So, I tried that thing. I tried being the kind of speaker that is gonna turn to Luke 17 and just take you through seven verses. That went really badly. Bless all those people that invited me when I was doing that, but that was not going well. I got invited to a college after that and it was like a chapel service I was supposed to speak at. Had like 25 minutes. I was like, “I can either sit here in my office, which was really my kitchen table, and try to come up with some exegesis, some fantastic hermeneutics about this … ”
Jen: Pull out the Greek meaning of at least four words.
Amena: Yes, yes! You know, I was like, “I could really try hard and be really bad at that. Or maybe I can try this 25 minutes and really do what I do.”
Amena: So I said, “You know what? I’m just gonna try it. It’s a room full of college students. I feel like they might possibly be more forgiving. Let me see.”
So I went out there and took my poems and took my stories and did the 25 minutes. First of all, it just felt like breathing, Jen.
Jen: I love it, I have goosebumps.
Amena: It’s like I just didn’t feel the restrictions, the tensions of you’re trying to be what somebody expects you to be. I was fully being … When it finished I realized, “I just spent 25 minutes being myself. When was the last time I was really my full self on stage?” After I did that I said, “I just can’t fit into anybody’s box or expectations. All I have is being myself.” It’s one thing if your being yourself and people are like, “Oh I just don’t dig that,” or, “I don’t get it. It’s not my thing.” Then it’s like, “Okay … ”
Jen: Okay, go with God.
Amena: Cause I can’t really … Yeah, right. I can’t really try to carve myself into something else. But if I’m constantly at this rat race of, “What do you want me to be? Let me try to be that. Oh, now you want me to be this, let me try to be that.” I mean, that’s a soul-killer, a creativity killer. No one can create well that way, you know?
Jen: That has so much relevance for everybody listening. Just fill in the blank. Who you are, what you’re good at, what your lane is. When you are operating outside of that, it feels so … There’s so much upheaval there, so much emotional upheaval.
I remember when I first started … In my first instinct, I want to be a writer. I’m kind of like you. I grew up loving books and words and stories. I wanted to be inside those pages. Writing is where I feel the wind at my back the most. So much like you, when I started writing, people started wanting me to be a speaker. I was like, “Why do you think I can do that? Did somebody tell you? Why are you asking me to speak at your thing? You don’t even know that I can do that.” I’m so grateful that this was really before social media and that there’s not a hardcore record of some of those early recordings of me talking, ‘cause they were so brutal.
At that time, I didn’t know who to look to. I didn’t know how to … And so, she’s a dear friend, and I actually love her with my entire being and heart. But who I looked to was Beth Moore, because she’s the queen of speaking like that. All my early talks, I essentially emulated her. Can you even imagine how bad that was? Can you try to imagine Jen Hatmaker trying to do Beth Moore? I mean it was just …
Amena: Life is hard.
Jen: … So sad. I feel like I should write handwritten apologies to every woman who had to sit through any of those talks. Like, “Can I make amends? Is there anything I could do to make up for that hour that you’ll never get back?”
I know what you mean. It feels good when you are using the muscles that you have.
Jen: It’s not that it’s effortless, ‘cause it’s still hard work. Work is work. But it feels right. I love that advice, I think everybody probably is walking away with, like a, “Ahh,” when you just said this.
Jen: I want to talk about your new book. First of all, hear me doing this … Yay, girl.
Jen: It’s coming out in November, right?
Amena: Yes, November seventh.
Jen: I can’t wait to read it. You plus words equals magic. So I just cannot wait to read it. It’s called How to Fix a Broken Record, brilliant. Did you come up with that?
Amena: I did, actually, yes.
Jen: It’s so good. Sometimes … Okay, I want to just take a quick rabbit trail down publishing. Because, sometimes the worst rub is when you’re working in collaboration with publishers and cover designers. It’s a big team effort. I find the rubber leaves the road, often, on title and cover art. Both of those have such potential to derail. So, when I saw your title, I was like, “Oh, she came up with that. It’s so good.”
Jen: The subtitle, too. “Thoughts on Vinyl Recordings, Awkward Relationships, and Learning to Be Myself.” Yeah!
Jen: Just tell us about it. Tell us about your process in writing it, what it’s about, why you wanted to write it, what you’re hoping your readers walk away with, all of it.
Amena: This will be my second nonfiction book, and I think a lot has happened in my life, in my soul, in between the two books. Writing books is hard. I don’t know if you would say the same thing.
Amena: Before you write a book, you’re like, “I’ll do that.” Other people see you and they know you write well, or you speak well and they’re like, “You should write a book.” And you’re like, “I should write a book.” And there’s sort of this dream of what that all’s gonna be.
Amena: Sort of this combination of how Steven King’s books sell, that this will happen …
Amena: … That you will write whatever your version of “The Shining” is.
Jen: Yes, it’s just super common.
Amena: Whatever your faith-based version of “The Shining” is, you’ll write that. Millions of people will love you when you do that.
Amena: And then you sit down and write your book and it sucks, and you cry, and you end up gaining 25 pounds because you just eat bread the entire time. You know? Everything.
Jen: Girl, you’re just saying the truth of it. It’s hard.
Amena: The whole process batters you …
Jen: It does.
Amena: … From what you dreamed it was going to be. I think with this book, I was really determined, Jen, not to succumb to the pressure. The pressure of, “It’s time to write a book.” The pressure of this is what you need next in your career.
Amena: I was trying just to not succumb to that pressure, and wait until I felt like I had a thing to say.
Amena: And so I just had to go through that process, live some life, and that idea of the first few years of my 30s, I tried to think, “What’s the thread here? What’s the thread that’s been going on?” A lot of my 30s has been figuring out–what are these words that keep repeating? You can’t be loved if you’re not doing for people.
Amena: They don’t love you if you’re not serving them, helping them. Even God.
Jen: I struggle with that.
Amena: God thinks you’re fine, God loves you, but really, what God really wants is this stuff that you’re doing.
Amena: If you’re not doing that stuff, God doesn’t love you. What are those messages? I tried to think in all areas of life; my spiritual life, which obviously really goes into everything, my marriage, I covered my dating life prior to getting married, which was its own …
Jen: I cannot wait. I cannot wait to read it.
Amena: … its own weird time. Finding home. I tried to think about, what are all of those areas? Loving myself. What are all of those areas where those broken records are?
I decided, I think the summer before I was writing, I was reading a lot of comedic books written by women and I loved that.
Jen: Me too.
Amena: I love that about your voice too, that when you write it’s like, “Hey, life is ignorant sometimes.”
Amena: “I just need to say these ignorant things.” I feel like in a way, some of the poetry that I had been doing in church settings was so reverent, worshipful-type work that it was almost like, when I would have 30 minutes to do a set of poems, people would be like, “Oh Lord, she’s crazy. What is she doing? What is she talking about?” But that’s me. That very stern moment that people were seeing, that’s like 10% of how I am in my real life.
Jen: Totally true.
Amena: You know?
Amena: So, I feel like this book is the most myself I have been …
Jen: Oh, yes.
Amena: … In my work. That makes me feel really, really proud of it and simultaneously super nervous. When I recorded the audio book for it, I’m in the studio with this gentleman who’s never heard this book, has never met me. I’m reading these words, and I’m like, “Amena, he’s learning a lot about you that I don’t think he wanted to know.” And then my mind was like, “Girl, everybody is about to learn a lot about you.”
Jen: That is what this whole book is. To be read.
Amena: Maybe they didn’t want to know. Yeah, you know. So trying to sort of bring that combination of those words, and music. I’m really, really inspired by music. I loved that idea of thinking about what is annoying when a record is broken, or a record has a scratch on it, and it just keeps repeating that same noise, we all perk up to it to see, “Oh gosh, I gotta fix that, I gotta step over there and figure out.” But in our real life, that happens all the time. You know? In our souls all the time, and we don’t stop.
Jen: That’s great.
Amena: … And try to examine that. That’s sort of where the book came from, so it is full of lists of very ignorant things.
Jen: Yes, good.
Amena: Some of hardest chapters I ever had to write. I mean, chapters I wrote with a tissue box next to my laptop and just cried and typed, and cried and typed.
Jen: I’m excited for that, because just the public you, which is typically girl on a stage doing spoken word, is so powerful, deep, meaningful, usually sobering, serious. The full picture of Amena is hilarious, snarky, funny, wise-crack. I mean, I’m excited for everybody to get the all of you, and even your story too, because there’s a lot of power in sharing our history in a vulnerable way. 100 times out of 100, our readers will come along side of us and say, “Me, too. Me, too.” None of our stuff is unique to us. We have so many shared threads in our stories.
One thing that you’ve done throughout the book, which I really love how you structured this, because music is such a common first language for so many of us. It’s spoken to us in different ways. You’ve attached songs to different eras of your life. You talk about Beyonce’s “Sasha Fierce,” as your early dating life and I really would love to hear a story from that. Speaking of dating, by the way, you mentioned that you read I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
Amena: Blessed. Blessed. Blessed.
Jen: Everybody. Girl, you did it. You lived it. So, I would love for you to talk about that and some of the other songs that have defined different eras of your life.
Amena: Yeah. I think it’s interesting with this book, because there’s a generation of us, particularly those of us who grew up sort of in church environments or in Christian conservative-type environments. And I Kissed Dating Goodbye, there’s an era of us that that was what were were told how we date.
Amena: How we do that. And so I did that for a while until I was like, “Hey. If I keep kissing dating goodbye, what that mean? … ”
I mean …Forever?
Jen: Will you tell everybody what that is, just in case they don’t know about that little precious book?
Amena: Bless our hearts. So, I Kissed Dating Goodbye was a book written, I want to say this was definitely in the 90s.
Amena: When this book was written. It was written by a young man named Joshua Harris, who was very young when he wrote the book. He’s even spoken to this recently. But he was very young when he wrote this book. It was sort of this … I think it was intended to be for teenagers, this idea that it’s really not a time in your teenage life to focus on dating. If you date you should date in groups. And if you’re dating, that you should only date to get married. And if you’re 16, you’re not ready to get married, why are you dating?
Well for some of us, that made us scared enough to not date. For some people, it was like, “Oh, that’s what this is? I’m totally dating. And doing all the things … ”
Jen: Right. I’ll do the opposite.
Amena: Yes. Everybody had different responses to that. I was coming from a single-parent home, and my mom was determined not to raise any more intentionally single parents. My mom was like, “Listen, this life is a struggle. This is hard. I’m doing it cause I love you, and because this was the way my cards got dealt to me, but I don’t want this for you if we can help it.” So for me, some of those premises of, “Well just avoid men at all costs,” was like, “Yeah, that seems helpful. Let’s avoid men at all costs, all right.”
Well then you get into college or your 20s, and you’re like, “So, I’m supposed to date somebody in a group?”
Jen: Right. Come on, Josh Harris.
Amena: “We’re supposed to just get married? Everything’s gonna be okay?” Something about that seems strange. And then, heaven help you, you get into your 30s or your 40s and your single. “I’m supposed to date in a group, when I’m grown?”
Jen: Stop it.
Amena: .. And have my own place and pay rent and taxes?
Jen: Come on.
Amena: … I’m supposed to go on a date with all of you? You know, those things. So it was almost like, once his book came out, for a long time, it just felt like there wasn’t a tool to be like, “Okay, well I’m not 16, and I could get married but maybe I don’t want to get married. And I could go on dates, but not ever person I’m going to date is going to be my spouse, either. So what are all those things?” And I think I talk about this in the book. I read Dr. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, they did a book Boundaries in Dating, which was hugely helpful for me. They both got married in their 30s. They talked about how dating is a breeding ground for you to be able to grow. It doesn’t have to be considered this danger zone. You can grow there, spiritually, emotionally, you can learn what you want in a relationship. You can learn how to develop healthy boundaries for yourself. How to love and respect yourself while you’re loving and respecting the person you’re dating.
And not every person sent into your life that you may fall in love with is meant to be the person you’re gonna be with forever.
Amena: If that was the case, I’d be in a world of mess, right now. Dear.
Jen: So I like that. I like that you sort of move from the rigid, bananas viewpoint of, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, to something more healthy, and reasonable, and normal, like Cloud and Townsend. I’m gonna have them on the podcast soon, and I’m so nervous about it because I respect them so much. They’ve helped me, too, in so many areas.
But I know that you were like, “I want to do this well.” Your mom taught you right. “Let’s do this well, let’s date with integrity.” And so, you went so far to join a Tall People’s Club in Atlanta. I would love to hear more about this.
Amena: Okay. Because another book … I have all these curiosities about Dr. Henry Cloud, so I might text you some questions and be like, “Jen, when you’re on the line can you ask him these things?” Because he very rarely talks about this book that he wrote called How to Get a Date Worth Keeping, which totally changed my life.
But now, he’s talking to leaders and he’s doing all these other things. So, I don’t want to be the person that’s supposed to be interviewing him about all the serious things. I’m like, “Yeah, that’s cool, cool, cool, listen, can we talk real quick real about some of those dating, cause that was really good for me.”
Amena: So I have all these things. I kinda want to chime in on your conversation like, “Can you get me on that three-way?”
Amena: Some people on the podcast are like, “What’s three-way?” Anyway.
Jen: They’re young. That’s cause they’re 24. They don’t know about that.
Amena: So his book, How to Get a Date Worth Keeping, was a dating program. As a part of that dating program, if you decided to do it, it was not to find a spouse. It was to get your dating life healthy. It was to make yourself process why are you dating the types of people that you date? Are there some problematic things in the types of people that you choose to date? Those things, which totally helped me. I was always choosing the guy who was a lot of fun and really handsome, and just couldn’t commit to anything. That was totally my type for a long time, which doesn’t really work that great if you want to be in a committed relationship.
So, as a part of that, I had to meet five new guys every week. That’s a part of the program.
Amena: Yeah. I was out there in the grocery store like, “What are you doing with those apples. How you doing? I’m Amena. What’s your name?” So this is what’s setting me to Googling things and this is how I found out about the Tall People’s Club. Now in my mind, I was going to an event where Idris Elba was going to be there, basically.
Jen: Okay, yeah, obviously.
Amena: There’s gonna be a room full of Idris Elba …
Jen: Of course.
Amena: … George Clooney …
Jen: As all dating spaces are.
Amena: Clearly, I’m walking in like all the model-esque, tall men that I’ve been missing every other place that I’m going.
Jen: But they will certainly be at Tall People’s Club.
Amena: Oh, they will certainly be there. I get there, and basically the Tall People’s Club at that time was like a room of what looks like your third grade teacher. Particularly, your third grade teacher that had the crochet sweater vest, that told you the season it was.
Jen: Oh no.
Amena: That in October, jack-o-lanterns. But in March, four-leaf clovers. Had the bow tie that had Frosty the Snowman …
Jen: No! It’s so depressing.
Amena: Yeah. So I was immediately like, “Wow. Idris must be working, because he’s not here. This is making me feel strange.” I just didn’t know what to do. It was so disappointing. But that was a part of it. A part of it was you gotta be willing to take a risk on a night being a wash, just to get out there and … Some of it was more about the work in you than it was all these cool guys you were gonna meet. I did meet some really great guys that way, and I just met some scallywags, bless my heart.
Amena: But that was some of the numbers game of it, really.
Jen: Well, and I kinda like it because it forces you into this space of risk-taking and just being a little bit more assertive instead of waiting for life to happen to you, kinda taking the bull by the horns. There’s a place for that, just to sort of develop that muscle in dating probably remains in other areas, too. So, I kind of like the premise there even though Tall People’s Club was just basically a seasonal … way to meet men who loved the seasons. That’s so hilarious with the …
I was a elementary teacher, so I remember being in school and a lot of my peers … Now remember, this was early 90s or mid-90s, but they’d come to class with their … Do you remember button covers? God, do you remember that?
They’d have the four-leaf clover button covers and the apple button covers. And I thought, “It’s such a bad sign. This doesn’t bode well for the future.”
So listen, you talk about a couple things in your book that I like. You’re gonna mention the power of yes and the power of no. I like this conversation. I think it’s important and I’m hearing it among a lot of women that I respect and trust. What you have to say about saying yes, this is what you said. “’Yes’ is not something to be given away to everybody. ‘Yes’ can be treasured, valued, considered. ‘Yes’ can be selective. Saying yes isn’t about being a good person. ‘Yes’ costs me something and I should weigh this carefully.”
That’s good, I like it. Can you talk about that a little bit? Cause, I think, as you know, so many of us are saying yes to too many things. How do you suggest we draw the line between a healthy yes, and how can we get okay with saying no when that’s the right response?
Amena: I think in our society it’s so ingrained in a lot of us as women to feel like its our job to say yes, that we must say yes. And particularly hard when the no is saying no to a good thing. When people are asking you to do volunteer work, or they’re asking you for help with things, or our families. We have so many responsibilities. It’s not that a lot of those things are terrible things. It’s not like someone is like, “Please melt down a Jolly Rancher and then put it in your veins.” It’s not like someone asking you to do that.
Sometimes, it’s people asking you to do good things or giving you what seem to be good opportunities. But I think for me, it’s been having to make those decisions of, “Even when this is a good thing, is it truly helpful to me? Am I in a healthy place where I can really give to this? Why am I saying yes to it? Am I saying yes to it because I’m excited about it? Cause it seems like a great idea? Because I get really passionate when I think about it?” Or, am I saying yes because I feel obligated. Because I feel like if I don’t say yes, I’m going to be rejected. I think, too, that ends up turning into this web of our relationships that get awkward, because some of our relationships then begin to exist on the premise that we will say yes.
Amena: And then our relationships don’t have room for us to say, “You know what? No. I can’t do that today.”
Jen: It’s a discipline to practice that, it really is. And it takes some work to hone it. Have you ever read the book Essentialism?
Jen: It’s a really good one, and my agent put it in my hands years ago because I think I’m a pleaser, and because the work you and I do is rooted in our faith. It’s spiritual work and it’s for the kingdom. It makes the no’s a little bit more fraught. They feel more complicated, like we’re saying no to Jesus himself.
Jen: Cause most of the people that ask us to do something, it’s something … It’s in a faith setting, it’s in a church setting, it’s for people. It’s to serve them, it’s to minister to them. It makes it really tricky to say no. So I was saying yes to everything cause I felt spiritually responsible for it. And he put this book in my hands.
Now, this is a much less eloquent way to say what you just said, but one thing that it taught me, it kind of had a catch phrase. When you’re weighing a decision, if I’m gonna say yes or no to this, and it asked a really simple question that was basically this: if this request for you … If it’s not a, “Hell yes!” then it’s a no.
Amena: Right! Yes.
Jen: And I was like, “Oh, dang.” Cause you know …
Jen: … Something about that resonates in my gut. You know when we get a request that it’s a, “Hell yes.” You know, “I want to do that. I’m energized by that. I’m good for that,” even. “I’m a good fit for that.” Or, when it’s kind of like, “I guess, yes. I should, yes. I feel like I ought to, yes.” It’s not the same sort of internal instinct, and so that’s a grid that I use a lot. You know what else? What’s your experience because you practice this. Because I think it’s actually liberating to think about how it actually plays out. What’s your experience when you have told really great people with a super event, or a wonderful cause, or something lovely they’ve invited you into, when you’ve said no to them? What’s been your experience there?
Amena: Well, I’ll say two things. Sometimes, it feels just devastating. Maybe that’s an ego thing, really. If I’ve been invited into a great opportunity and I know in my soul that I need to say no to it, it just feels devastating for my ego to not be a part of it, to not … It becomes an issue of pride, really, to not be able to be a part of it. To not be able to post on social media that I did the whatever it was. So that part, sometimes, for my character it’s good for me, but it’s really hard.
I think on the other side, there have been times that I said no to something that it became a great opportunity for someone else. I try to think more of that especially when it’s an opportunity, something that comes across the table. Sometimes my saying, “You know what? No, that doesn’t feel right to me.” If I let my ego and my pride get out of the way, sometimes it didn’t feel right to me because it’s for somebody else that’s really gonna thrive in that setting. That that’s gonna be their, “Yes, yes, yes!” when it was my kind of like, “Meh, I guess I could.”
Jen: That’s great.
Amena: And then sometimes, at the time, I say no to it because I feel in my soul it’s no. And then when the time for whatever that is, that event or that opportunity comes up, another thing in my life popped up. That’s happened a couple of times, where we had a critical family situation happen, and we had said no to some things, and we happened to be home to be with our family during a tough time.
So, I try to also trust God’s rhythms of grace on that. Sometimes my saying no … I have the hard conversations with God and it makes me curse when I pray. Sometimes when a good thing comes along and then God’s like, “Say no to that,” I’m like, “Why are you asking me to say no?” I’m always like, “Why are you asking me to say no? You didn’t ask so and so to say no.”
Amena: “You let so and so do that, you let so and so eat the cupcake. Let me get the cupcake, too, Jesus.” I have that moment with Him. But I’m learning to try and trust when God says that, because sometimes I get to the actual moment itself and realize you couldn’t see it then, but this is best for you.
Jen: Oh, man. Oh, that’s powerful. Thank you for unpacking that. That is just ringing so true in my spirit. You know what else is interesting? By and large, when I have said to a really great request, same thing. I just know in my gut it’s not right and there’s this sort of this clear inclination. This is not a good yes. People are really generous with it, generally. When I say, “I love what you’re doing. I think this is meaningful and I’m here for it. I love your purpose and I think this is really gonna serve people well, but at this point, this ‘yes’ is gonna be a ‘no’ to my family, and a ‘no’ to the space I need to keep.” People are so kind with it. They’re like, “Great. Bravo.”
I think I operated out of this mindset that if I say no, people are going to die. Right?
Jen: The event is going to fold. That’s just silly. Instead, what I find, 99 times out of 100 is graciousness. Like, “Great. Be home,” or … Then it opens up opportunities for other people and for ourselves. Thank you for saying that.
In Moxie, the book I just wrote, I wrote an essay called “Doldrums” and I was talking about kind of the season. I don’t know how else to describe it, but just in a funk. Not a deep depression. I’m not dipping into that territory. But more just like everything just kinda feels stuck and stagnant and dark. I just feel like I’m in a hole and I can’t climb out. All my best practices I’ve just kicked to the curb, and I’m in unhealthy patterns and habits and I’m just blah.
So, I sort of talked about adding good practices back in. For me they’re super simple. Things like cooking, reading, limiting screen time, eating right, date nights, praying. None of it’s magic, but it’s the things that keep me healthy.
You’ve talked about this. You’ve got this idea in your book about body and soul. So, can you talk for just a minute about what that really means? I think there’s a lot of ink spilled right now about soul care. I’m always looking for wisdom on it, things that really resonate. And how to take care of ourselves. How to slow down and rest. You talk about that healing is hard. I’d love to hear you speak into that.
Amena: Yeah, I just recently this year finally did the Enneagram, because I’m one of those people that when people are talking about a thing, I’m kind of like, “Nah, nah, nah … ”
Jen: Girl, I haven’t done it. I’m the last human…
Amena: I’m kinda like, “Okay,” so I took the Enneagram [Test]. And basically, discovered that on the Enneagram I’m what’s called a [type] two. Which in my mind … Nowhere in any Enneagram book does it say this, I totally made this up, Jen. But, basically, a two is like the auntie of the Enneagram. It’s like the auntie-a-gram, basically. A two is a person that’s making collard greens for everyone and brings biscuits to things, and folds your clothes when they’re at your house. I’m totally that person.
I love that about myself, ‘cause I love taking care of people. But I think in part, when I’m in the doldrums like you described in your book, what that turns into is I’m doing a better job taking care of other people than I am taking care of myself. And I can sort of use taking care of other people as a distraction to not deal with what’s going on in my soul.
I think a part of the soul care for me is going, “You know how you really just love other people?” Like, you would love them with the last inch of energy that you had? Do that for yourself sometimes, girl. Do that for yourself. Give yourself that same love, that same undivided attention that you would give to a friend. So, I am sort of learning, still, how that looks for me. Cooking is a big part of that for me, which I didn’t think that would be a thing.
Jen: Yeah, me too.
Amena: But I’ve totally become that aunt in my family that’s like, “Let me make this barbecue chicken for you all.” But, because I enjoy it.
Jen: Me too.
Amena: I enjoy cooking and doing … Something about getting in there with a recipe and just stirring things. It’s having something you can do that the end goal of it, you get a chance to eat something delicious.
Amena: I love that, you know?
Jen: I think that for you and I, who deal so much in words, and we’re in our heads. We’re in thoughts, we’re in deep concepts. There’s just something nourishing about putting our hands on a knife and chopping an onion.
Jen: Just that sort of primal work of being in the kitchen and nourishing other people in that way. It’s just something about it. It’s good for my soul.
Amena: I think, too, I love that you used the word nourishing there, because I think I’m also trying to focus on the nourishing relationships in my life. I think because we’re in a space where the work we do is in part public. It’s connecting to people online, it’s connecting with people at events. And that’s awesome, and I love meeting people that have connected with my work or that I’ve met at an event.
But, there’s only a small number of people that really know me. Know me, know me that I could cry and snot in front of them. I also am trying to work on investing my time with those people. Going on walks. Particularly for me, that’s a cadre of women, really. It’s obviously my husband and my family, too. But it’s a cadre of women that really walk through a lot of that with me. To really not let those relationships go by the wayside. If we have to schedule, in our calendars, every other week … Like right now, my best friend, she’s a new mom. She has a five-month old baby. Our best time to talk is on her lunch break at her job every other week. So, every other week, she’ll get in her car and eat her lunch, and for an hour we just jump into it.
Jen: You sit in her car?
Amena: She sits in her car. We’re talking on the phone.
Jen: Oh, I see what you’re saying.
Amena: She’ll sit in her car …
Jen: Oh, that’s awesome.
Amena: Yeah, and I’ll be on the phone. And of course, you got an hour. You don’t have time to be like, “Girl, how’s the weather there?” You’re like, “Listen. I said this thing to my husband I shouldn’t have.”
Amena: “I probably also got mad when I … ” You know what, you need to just jump into it. You don’t have time for the pleasantries. So I think that’s important, too. That’s a part of soul care is really not letting the people that love us, not letting those relationships just go by the wayside.
Jen: I’m waving my hanky right here. You’re just saying everything that is so true in my life, too.
Let me ask you, let’s wrap it up here, girl. I could talk to you all day.
Jen: I have one million other things to ask you. We’re just gonna have to do another podcast.
Jen: Cause I got other stuff. I want to ask you just a couple of questions just to wrap it up. Kinda down and dirty, whatever comes to you. It can be funny, it can be serious, I don’t care.
I talk a lot about mess and moxie, they’re kind of … Mess often leads to Moxie, but, what’s a messy moment that you’ve had in your life that you’ve powered through?
Amena: Basically, I hate to wash dishes. That’s my least favorite thing to do in life. If hell is being forced to do something that you hate for eternity, it would probably be just me standing in front of a sink full of dishes and being forced to wash them for eternity. That would be the absolute worst for me.
So normally, I’m doing all the things except the dishes.
Jen: Okay, yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Amena: Yeah, and I’m to the point with our house now, Jen, that I used to be, when people would come over it’s like, “Man, let me hurry up.” Now, the people that I really love, I just refuse to clean up for them.
Amena: When they come over, I just look them in the eyes and say, “We welcome you into our home. Because we love you, this place is a mess.”
Jen: Love me as I am.
Jen: I love that you amitted that. Dishes, it’s like the curse of Eve. I’m just gonna attach it to that. I’m just gonna say, somehow, that was under that umbrella. I’m with you on that.
This is a question that Barbara Brown-Taylor asked and I love it. What’s saving your life right now?
Amena: I would say it’s still music.
Jen: Yeah. What are you loving? What are you listening to right now?
Amena: And, I’m listening to Noname’s debut record. I’m listening to three black women on shuffle, and it’s been amazing.
Jen: I’m gonna have all this linked up in this transcript, and I’m going to go listen to all of them as soon as we hang up this phone.
Amena: Okay, let me ask you one last thing. I didn’t prepare you for this, so, sorry. Could you close us out? I would love for everybody just to hear a bit of what you do if … Would you mind just sharing a bit of your spoken word poetry with us, just to finish this session so people can kind of really get a sense of how powerful and beautiful your work actually is?
Jen: Yes. I would love to do that. I am gonna share a stanza from a poem called “Girlfriend’s Poem.” I think it’s fitting for our conversation, because it’s a poem that I wrote for the women warriors in my life. The women that really walk through this stuff with me. So, I’ll try to read a stanza, ‘cause you know all my poems are like three minutes long.
Do as much as you want. The mic is yours.
Amena: Awesome. So I wrote this poem trying to describe sort of what it’s like to be friends at this stage of life when you don’t have time for all the, “How’s the weather, girl? What’s good with you?”
Okay, so …
“We find our friendships in coffee shops and at lunch tables. In green rooms and quiet corners of other people’s parties. We skip the shallow small talk and pleasantries. We turn public places into living rooms. We bare our souls.
We decide not to hide where the extra folds have made their home on our bodies. We drink wine and margaritas and chai. We tell jokes over guacamole and queso and tortilla chips. We toast to cupcakes and butter rolls, because who needs champagne when we can dish over donuts? Because calorie counting don’t count here. Your round hips are welcome here. Here, we celebrate cellulite and stomachs that never return to taut after gaining weight or birthing children, or slowly losing our need to impress people who care nothing about us here. We love ourselves, just like we are.
We preach acceptance to each other. We say to each other, “Girl, love yourself the way you love me, the way you forgive me when I’m late even though I say every time that I’m gonna be on time,” the way you let me cry when I’m angry. The way you let me vent when I want to be mean to the world and to myself. The way you pray for my soul to find rest when you watch me carry my stress to panic attacks and migraines. We are warriors and menders. We have watched each other become women, become mother, become wife, become single, become business owner, minister, author, student, activist, boss. And we decide not to judge.
We’ve learned you can never know the pain another woman hides behind insecurity, too much mascara, ill-fitting outfits, until you have not only walked in her shoes, but also know her pain and wounds, how she survived her scars, that it’s brave to look yourself in the eyes every day and love the woman who stares back.
We take the word friend. We carry its meaning in the wrinkles of our hands. We take each other’s stories and secrets to the grave with us.”
Jen: Amena! I’m just crying in my closet. It’s so lovely. It’s so perfect. I feel like you just nailed it. That was amazing. Thank you.
Tell everybody where they can find you. Where can they find this beautiful work? Where can they find out where you’re traveling? Where can they get your stuff, all of it?
Amena: Yes. I would love for anybody that’s interested in following all the Amena Brown things to go to amenabrown.com, that is the portal that will have some photos, where I actually have makeup on. It also has a list of places I will be. I am also on all of the internet things, except Snapchat. I don’t post things. I just go there to watch DJ Calvin.
Jen: I tried to do Snapchat for one week to connect with my teenage children, and I was like, “No, this. I can’t. This is dumb. I don’t want to see a picture of your face just looking at your phone.”
Jen: So, yeah. I lasted all of one week.
Hey, thanks for being on today.
Amena: Thanks, Jen. This was awesome.
Jen: I’m so for you. I’m just cheering you on in every possible way. I can’t wait for your book to come out. It’s just weeks away, honestly.
Jen: And so, just proud of you. Love you, sister. Thanks for being on today.
Amena: Love you, Jen. Talk soon.
Jen: I really love her. I really love her. I love her work. I think it’s so powerful. Words obviously are powerful to me, but just the way Amena uses them with her special mix of gifts is so special. So guys, everything that we mentioned on the podcast today, I’ll have on the transcript over on my web site. All the links, all the artists, her books, everything she’s got. All things Amena, I will have over on that transcript today, so if you missed it you can find it.
I hope you enjoyed her and you’re going to want to follow her for sure. She’s a real special voice in our generation so, what a joy to have her on today. Hey, thanks for joining us, you guys. Thanks for joining us week after week–it’s so great to have you here. I love hearing back from you. The podcast is one of the great joys of my life right now, so let us know how we can serve you, let us know what you’d love to hear about, and what’s been meaningful to you, because it’s just a real thrill to bring it to you. So you guys have a great week and join us back next week. See you soon.
Narrator: Thanks for joining us today on the For the Love Podcast. Tune in next week, when we sit down again with Jen and friends to chat about all the things we love.
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